From Costa Rica and beyond

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Collision at Cajamarca

For years, students in my World Civilizations (Post 1500) classes have been assigned a chapter from Jared Diamond´s Guns, Germs, and Steel. The chapter analyzes Spain´s conquest of the Incan Empire, made possible by Pizarro´s dramatic defeat of Incan emperor Atahualpa. That historical turning point transpired here in Cajamarca, Peru. The chapter´s title is "Collision at Cajamarca." It´s exciting to visit this place that was, until now, only a name for me.

My new year began in Cuenca, Ecuador. I had ridden there with Australians Tim and Adrian and we met up with James (from West Virginia). Tim´s bike was in need of repair. An internet search produced the name and location of a supposedly good mechanic. Fernando is indeed a good mechanic and a generous one at that. He and an assistant went right to work on Tim´s bike. Adrian and I used the time and the facilities to clean our own bikes. My bike was caked with dirt and so was the air filter. It feels good to baby the machines we usually ride so hard. Of course my main concern was my balding tires. After six flats (regardless of whether the tires themselves had anything to do with those failures), I was desperate for a change. That change was not assured though. While shops may even be open for business on Christmas Day, many places on New Year´s Eve were not. Not to worry. Fernando knew who to call. A friend of his manages the local Continental tire store, which happened to be open. Fernando escorted us to the shop where I bought tires for the front and rear and scored the last heavy duty tube for the rear wheel - all of this with a very generous discount. In return I allowed the manager to put Continental stickers on my bike´s front forks. I don´t like to advertise or endorse, but the stickers look pretty decent. Most importantly, I have had no flats since Cuenca, despite some very punishing roads.

Looking forward to a festive and eventful New Year´s Eve, Tim and Adrian took very uncharacteristic "disco naps." At about 8pm we headed out wondering where the big gatherings would be. James and a couple acquaintances from his hostel joined us. Surprisingly, many restaurants were closed. We settled for an Indian restaurant where we had eaten the previous evening. After the meal, we decided to partake of a local pastime and smoked a round of apple flavored tobacco from a hookah. I assume immigrants from India and the Middle East brought this custom  along with their respective cuisines to Cuenca. We then returned to the sidewalks and looked for the party. We found none, other than a small street concert benefiting local environmental causes. Instead, small groups of friends were spread throughout the city. Most had effigies of every imaginable type, which they were looking forward to burning - a means of symbolically burning all the previous year´s frustrations. There were effigies of politicians, villains, cartoon characters, and many more. Ever since entering Ecuador we have seen these figures on sidewalks, in the beds of pick-ups, and even strapped to the grills of semi trucks. Now we knew their fate.

As midnight approached, the streets were ablaze with torched effigies. Fireworks were not city-sponsored, but again set off by private individuals anywhere and everywhere. It was a chaotic and at times nerve-wrecking scene. The fires and explosions made me think of the Troubles in Belfast. We stood outside a small karaoke bar ready to duck and cover and tried not to inhale too many of the pungent fumes wafting through the streets. Disappointed that we hadn´t discovered a great public gathering with all kinds of cute, slightly tipsy Ecuadorian chicas wanting to wish us a happy new year, we resignedly called it a night.

The next day, the streets were already cleaned, but most businesses were still closed. No surprise, the town felt rather sleepy. We took a morning stroll through this attractive colonial town, shot a few pictures, and hunted for breakfast. Figuring there would not be much to do, we decided spontaneously to ride on. Our hope was to be ready to cross into Peru the next morning.

Our ride was a typical Andean cruise over hills and mountains with sometimes very deep valleys in between. The area immediately south of Cuenca brought Vermont to mind with rounded smallish mountains and lots of black and white cows. For lunch, we stopped at a roadside pizzeria. Pizza!! The pizza was actually quite good. To drink, we bought a bottle of locally made yogurt - those cows are not just trimming the grass. As we waited for our food, two riders on Honda Africa Twins rode by and then stopped to say hi. It was a married Dutch couple, Miriam and Don. We figured we would all see each other again.

That day´s ride eventually brought us to the end of the pavement and up into fog and mud. We caught up with Don and Miriam and rode about 10 more miles to the remote town of Palanda. We scouted out the most affordable accommodations that were able to provide a secure space for our bikes. Locals viewed us in different ways. I heard men mutter "gringos," we were met by next to no acknowledgement where we ate our dinner (chicken and rice, of course), but we were also received in friendly ways by some. I found it interesting that no traditional Latino music was to be heard. Instead rock music was blaring from different sources, including the venerable anthem We´re not Gonna Take It by Twisted Sister. Pop culture is truly pervasive and that´s a shame on certain levels, but at that time I was happy to trade Mariachi tunes for Rick Deez.

The next day, the six of us left Palanda in drizzly weather riding slippery, muddy roads. Foremost on our minds, though, was gasoline. James´s bike has the smallest fuel tank. He was very fortunate to get one gallon in Palanda. We knew that we would make it to the next town (Zumba), although that might require sharing fuel. Then the fear was whether we could access fuel in that military outpost. Reports from other riders posed the prospect of a long and hasslesome wait, requiring permission from military superiors to purchase gas. We were lucky, though. The gas station was open and all we had to do was put our names and plate numbers on a list before we filled our tanks - good for at least another 200 miles.

The sky soon cleared and the road was drying. We had grown accustomed to slippery and sticky (once it dried on the bikes) red mud. Now, after passing one last Ecuadorian military checkpoint, the color turned gray. This was clay, though. Down went Don. One of his panniers was slightly damaged, but he is a quick and capable mechanic. Shortly thereafter Miriam dropped her bike...right on the edge of a very steep slope. In both instances, the other nearest riders jumped to help out. The others acted equally quickly to get out their cameras. Don and Miriam also recorded the falls in bytes. No detail of our travels nowadays can be allowed to be forgotten.

We spent our first Peruvian night in San Ignacio. As we entered town, we lost Tim. Our posse divided up and searched the town. Soon Tim reappeared with two buddies he and Adrian had met in Colombia. Mike and Jason are two carefree souls from Tennessee riding south on vintage 1976 (I think) Honda 250s. Good thing Mike is a mechanic, because parts for those bikes are very hard to come by. They actually carry a spare piston with them. A local man saw our group and introduced himself. He is also a rider and has his own racetrack for dirt bikes. Mike and Jason were excited about that, so they checked out the track and then came back to report there was a gas station under construction where we could all camp. Mike, Jason and I chose the roof and had to hurry our gear downstairs at midnight when it began (very predictably) to rain.

Like everywhere else (since southern Mexico) on this trip, rains have been wrecking havoc on roadways in Peru. We knew that a landslide had blocked the road south, but had seen buses heading that way late in the evening, so we figured it must be open. Indeed it had been. Heavy equipment had reduced the rubble to a big mound that buses could just barely handle. When we arrived though, they had just sealed it off for two more hours of work. We visited, checked our bikes over, and sent a couple riders to pick up some pineapple at a nearby food stand. Tim went for a swim (in the river the road follows) and then, as he is wont to do, paraded about in his skivvies. When we had eaten all the pineapple we had wanted, he (still only partially clad) offered one to some local women who were sitting nearby. They accepted the fruit (and his help cutting it) with a mixture of amusement and disbelief.

That night was spent in Jaen, an unremarkable city packed with three-wheeled tuk-tuks cruising the streets looking for people needing a ride. Many of these vehicles are motorcycles in the front with two wheels and seating for at least three passengers in the back. Accordingly, there are a multitude of shops to work on these nifty taxis. I figured this would be a good place to have someone work on my top trunk which has been showing the strain of all the bumpy miles it has born.

Six of us, minus Mike and Jason, rode to Kuelap the next day. These pre-Incan ruins sit upon a mountaintop in very rural Peru. Our ride up there was magnificent. We stayed at a nice Hospedaje (complete with warm water!) in Maria and arose early the next day to visit the ruins. The compound covers over 12 acres and is one of Peru´s most important archaeological sites. Development there is minimal though. No signs or booklets provide the visitor with any insight. It was nice, though, to be left to explore and imagine and just to gaze into the mountainous, green surroundings.

Our fellowship parted ways the next day. Adrian and Tim are racing south to see the Dakar Rally in Nazca. James and I took a slightly more leisurely pace, heading to Cajamarca. After an initial wrong turn, made very frustrating by the fact that we had to backtrack over a mercilessly bumpy dirt road, we resumed typical Andean travel - climb up, up and up to the clouds and then head zig-zag fashion back down and repeat. We were in the second part of that program when the clouds thinned just enough to reveal a splendid green valley below us. We stopped, took out our cameras, took a couple pics and were getting back on our bikes when I noticed the clouds were lifting...quickly! Suddenly, that valley became an amazing expanse of dramatic mountains and ridge lines. It was the most dramatic landscape I have seen on this journey and perhaps in my life.

We arrived at the river in the valley just before sunset. Two tiny communities coexist there. They met our most basic needs - food, a place to stay, and gasoline (brought to us one-gallon-jug at a time). These valley towns and many of the mountain communities we passed make me wonder what it´s like to grow up there. Children definitely have schools to attend and the schoolyards are frequently the sites of volleyball games and occasionally soccer. Internet appears accessible, but is surely very slow and limited to cafes -  few people have money for their own computer not to mention internet subscriptions. At night, one street may have some street lights, but otherwise it´s dark and quiet. Evening church services are common, but don´t seem to draw more than a couple dozen attendees. In the early night, it´s not uncommon for people to sit in front of their homes and chat with friends and neighbors. The sides of buildings are often painted with signs promoting one political party or candidate or another, although I suspect politicians´ hirelings do the painting and pay the owner. Streets, schools, and the maintenance of the long mountain roads that connect them to other population centers suggest that the government does not totally neglect these communities. Indeed, paved roads seem to be slowly, but inexorably expanding their reach.  Whether riders 10 years from now will know the pleasure of these at times torturous but lovely back roads is very uncertain. I suspect it´s also uncertain how these improved roads will be received by the people they reach.

James and I were very relieved to reach pavement again. Thirty minutes later we were in Cajamarca. Our hotel is on the central park and only has hot water in the morning, if at all - quite an irritation for two dirty riders in this slightly chilly climate. The coolness of these equatorial cities still surprises me, even though I understand the science behind it. Cajamarca is proud of its agricultural riches (especially its dairy industry) and its history. Its history must, however, evoke mixed feelings here. On the one hand, this is a very Catholic part of the world. On the other, many of the people here descend from the Incas and the peoples who preceded them. Catholicism was introduced forcefully and nowhere is that more poignant than here in Cajamarca where the Spanish conquistador Pizarro and his men, armed with steel, guns, and horses (and germs, as Diamond asserts) defeated the Incan Emperor and thousands of his followers in 1533. Yesterday I visited the one preserved remnant of that time and event - the so called Ransom Chamber. It is asserted that this is both the chamber where Atahualpa was killed by Pizarro and where the ransom of gold, that was supposed to win Atahualpa´s release, was collected. But whether the ransom really was collected there and even how Atahualpa was killed (whether by fire or by garroting) appears to be in dispute. The main consequences of this encounter, however, are not in dispute.

James and I are sitting tight here until Tuesday when we can finally get paperwork showing we have Peru´s required vehicular insurance. Police along the Panamerican Highway are said to target rich foreigners for bribes. The wait here in Cajamarca will give us peace of mind as we head farther south.

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